I added The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin to my To Be Read list after reading Eva’s post about it on A Striped Armchair. I checked out a copy from the library, but after reading the first essay I knew that this book would be one that, A) I needed to mark up and write in while I read it and, B) I needed to own. So I bought my own copy and settled down on the sofa with one of the most delightful literary companions, Ursula K. Le Guin.
This book is a magnificent collection of essays and adapted talks. The collection as a whole will be of most interest to serious readers (and writers too, but you most certainly do not need to be a writer to enjoy her perspectives on writing), but there are a variety of essays on other topics such as beauty, justice, feminism, and genetic determinism. She approaches every topic with a writerly mind, which makes the collection feel extremely cohesive.
She expanded the way I think about characters, fantasy, imagination, oral performance vs. internal reading, rhythm in literature, and the origin of ideas. In a few essays she focuses on specific works of literature and adds new thought into their analysis and appreciation. In some essays she focuses on writing as a craft, which helped me look at reading with a new perspective. And, somewhat unexpectedly, she made me laugh as well.
I think my favorite essay is “A war without end,” an extremely thoughtful and important piece about privilege, freedom, oppression and revolution.
As Eva pointed out in her post, I’m not sure what book blogger or serious reader wouldn’t find delight at the subtitle: “Talks and essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination.” If that subtitle made your ears perk up and your brain think “oooooh!” – you can pretty much safely pick up this collection. It will not disappoint.
I’ll end with several passages that I think demonstrate why I needed my own copy of this book: there were so many places begging to be marked, starred, and referred back to often.
On reading fiction:
“Fiction as we currently think of it, the novel and short story as they have existed since the eighteenth century, offers one of the very best means of understanding people different from oneself, short of experience. Fiction is often really much more useful than lived experience; it takes much less time, costs nothing (from the library), and comes in a manageable, orderly form. You can understand it. Experience just steamrolls over you and you being to see what happened only years and years later, if ever. Fiction is much better then reality at providing useful, factual, psychological, and moral understanding.” (page 43)
On rhythm in prose:
“The thing to remember is that good prose does have a stress-rhythm, subtle and complex and changing though it may be. Dull prose, clunky narrative, hard-to-read textbook stuff, lacks the rhythm that catches and drives and moves the reader’s body and mind and heart.” (page 79)
On high heels (something I wholeheartedly agree with):
“The question has been asked before but I haven’t yet got an answer that satisfies me: why do women cripple their feet while men don’t?
[…] And I can’t get rid of the trouble, because my society denies that it is troubling. My society says it’s all right, nothing is wrong, women’s feet are there to be tortured and deformed for the sake of fashion and convention, for the sake of eroticism, for the sake of marriageability, for the sake of money. And we all say yes, certainly, all right, that is all right. Only something in me, some little nerves down in my toes that got bent awry by the stupid shoes I wore when I was young, some muscles in my instep, some tendon in my heel, all those bits of my body say No no no no. It isn’t all right. It’s all wrong.” (page 160, 162)
On the beauty of novels:
“I do think novels are beautiful. To me a novel can be as beautiful as any symphony, as beautiful as the sea. As complete, true, real, large, complicated, confusing, deep, troubling, soul enlarging as the sea with its waves that break and tumble, its tides that rise and ebb.” (page 184)
On the power of stories to help us shape ourselves and our lives:
“Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.
All of us have to learn to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.”
[…] What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.” (208-209)
“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.” (page 220)
On marketing diverse books:
“The stigma of “political correctness” invoked by those who see all refusal of bigotry as a liberal conspiracy, may be slapped on such books. They are often ghettoised by publishers and reviewers, segregated from fiction “of general interest.” If a novel is centered on the doings of men, or its major characters are male, white, straight, and/or young, nothing is said about them as members of a group, and the story is assumed to be “of general interest.” If the major characters are women, or black, or gay, or old, reviewers are likely to say that the book is “about” that group, and it is assumed, even by sympathetic reviewers, to be of interest chiefly or only to that group. Thus both the critical establishment and the publishers’ publicity and distribution tactics lend immense authority to prejudice.” (page 248)
On interacting with books and film:
“A reader reading makes the book, brings it into meaning, by translating arbitrary symbols, printed letters, into an inward, private reality. Reading is an act, a creative one. Viewing is relatively passive. A viewer watching a film does not make the film. To watch a film is to be taken into it — to participate in it — be made part of it. Absorbed by it. Readers eat books. Film eats viewers.
This can be wonderful. It’s wonderful to be eaten by a good movie, to let your eyes and ears take your mind into a reality you could never otherwise know. However, passivity means vulnerability; and that’s what a great deal of storytelling exploits.” (page 269)